Band of Brooders

After everything Aerosmith has been through in the past year — rehab, injuries, infighting — the question isn’t why America’s most dysfunctional rock band would finally break up, it’s what the hell has kept it together for so long.

Tyler’s odd behavior became monologue fodder for late-night hosts — Jimmy Kimmel joked that he’d be singing “Caulk This Way” on his upcoming Home Depot tour — but there was at least one person who found little about the impromptu performances funny: Joe Perry. “Anybody that’s willing to go out there with a fuckin’ red ball on their nose usually tends to get the attention, and, you know, that’s what he chooses to do,” he said. “I just look at it and I go, ‘What the fuck is he doing?’”

That’s more or less what went through Mike May’s mind at the Tilted Kilt, too, at least at first. But then he remembered what the singer had told him during a moment away from his handlers: “I need to do this,” Tyler had said, gesturing to the karaoke machine. He wanted to come in late at night, though, when the place was closed. Could that be arranged? May realized that Tyler didn’t need to perform as much as he simply needed to sing. “It’s like he was in singing withdrawal,” May says.

WHILE TYLER WAS STILL IN CALIFORNIA, Perry continued to talk about replacing him. He would eventually float (or endorse) more than a half-dozen options, including Paul Rodgers, the singer who fronted Queen after Freddie Mercury died, and Sammy Hagar, who took over vocals for Van Halen after David Lee Roth quit. On the business side of the band, Tyler was under additional pressure. During a January meeting between Tyler’s manager, Allen Kovac, and Aerosmith’s, Howard Kaufman, the latter reportedly said Tyler should leave the band — that the group would be better off without him.

Few people who really understand how Aerosmith operates believed that the band would follow through on the threats it was making in the press. “It’s one thing to replace Brad, or even Joe Perry, but Steven is the one person they can’t replace. You couldn’t have Aerosmith without him,” says a former band insider. “I felt like that was entirely kind of a public shakedown — ‘Okay, if you don’t come back we’re going on without you.’”

As transparent as the ruse may have looked, it’s important to realize that Joe Perry knows Steven Tyler better than any other person on earth, and he understood one fundamental truth about Aerosmith, and Tyler’s place in it: The one person who could kill the band — the one who is truly essential to its identity — also happens to be the one who could never let it die. Tyler doesn’t need it for the money: As a songwriter, he recently sold a stake in the Aerosmith catalog he owns for $50 million. And he doesn’t need it for the fame. But he does need it. Perry knows, and has always known, that Tyler lives and dies by Aerosmith. “I still remember Steven saying to his last wife, just before they walked down the aisle, ‘You know I love you, but the band comes first,’” says Collins, the former manager.